— Vibek Gupta
More than 60 days into lock-down with restrictions on all but basic and emergency services is the new reality of 21st century in Nepal, and around the world. The service that allows the body of the economy healthy running- transport, is one of the services affected by the pandemic. Most of the cities around the world have reported to have transport services dropped by 50 to 90%. The service under operation is limited to transport of basic life supply goods and emergency response and control.
A silver lining – positive side of the current situation is that crashes, pollution, congestion and the loses associated with them have fallen down. But at the cost of the economy, such benefits might not be desirable for most. So, a lot of debate is going around focusing on how to re-vitalize the economy through and out of the current situation. Focusing on passenger transport sector, we need to question – As the economy starts bouncing back to the new “normal”, when and how do we re-operationalize passenger transport services. Will or when will the public transport sector get back to the new normal? What will be the scenario of the externalities mentioned above when it becomes fully operational?
According to the National Economic Census 2018 (CBS Nepal), the transport and storage sector has employed 16,440 in the 1,481 registered entities. There are more than 200,000 passenger transport vehicles that employs a driver and similar figures in supporter (conductor) in these vehicles. The unrecorded labor force whose livelihood depends directly on transport sector is also higher. Transport sector not only generates employment but also connects the labor force to the employment opportunity. Thus, the role of transport sector is crucial in getting back the economy crippled from current standstill. The answers to the above questions aren’t going to be as simple, but the current situation also present opportunities to reshape the undesirable aspects associated with the pre-pandemic situation- pollution, crashes, congestion, and service quality.
The question to how is the transport sector will get back to normal is puzzling many operators, governments and researchers around the world. The services provided by many operators vary from city to city and the immediate policy taken up can have long lasting impact on the transport sector, and the economy as well. Safety in private vehicles could be simpler with occupancy restrictions and enforcement. However, it is difficult to operate public transport with the safe distancing restrictions as such provisions render the service unprofitable for the operators to provide.
The services in both public and private passenger services should maintain safe distance between passengers. The debate needs to be focused on public transport. Many transport service providers have been reporting to be in loss in the past. So, such restrictions would not be welcomed by the operators without any incentive. There are additional costs in sanitizing the vehicles frequently, provision of sanitizer to driver and users, and other effort to minimize contamination and spread of the virus. The cost of operation has to be shared by the government as well, as they should be responsible to disinfect the bus stops and its amenities frequently.
The cost to the government side needs to step up from just sanitization, and provide subsidy to the service providers. The current situation demands both the operators and the government to table on subsidy framework. The public transport sector needs to be subsidized to kick start its service into motion with safety restrictions as the lock-down ceases. The policy framework and subsidy can subside in the long run but the continuation/end of subsidized service should be well discussed as it presents the opportunity to raise the stakes of the government in the service provision and thus, can prove beneficial in enforcing better service in the future. The public transport operator companies reporting to be in loss in the pre-pandemic situation has the opportunity to leverage for subsidy for the service they provide. The crippled economy and limited financial resources should not limit the government from providing subsidy to public transport. Government’s support package must include transport sector as well.
While re-operationalizing the service, safety of the driver, fare collector, other administrative staff and passengers should be a high priority. The passengers should be spaced safely by skipping seats/taking alternate seats. Everyone should take precautions like using mask, gloves, cover mouth while sneezing or coughing directives to be taken by any people while sneezing or coughing; disinfecting the vehicle thoroughly before and after service operation; disinfecting bus stops and amenities should be done. The driver’s seat should also be safe distance from the passengers’ movement. Fare collection should be done patiently one by one either in the vehicle or off the vehicle. Ticketing with individual passenger details should be strictly enforced for long distance travels.
With fewer users and smoother road surface, the use of private vehicles is bound to be higher in proportion than public vehicles with reference to the pre-pandemic situation. The users’ behavior from past in Nepal have shown that the drivers will have the tendency to increase their speed on open paved roads. This can increase crashes and its effect, including increased possibility of causalities. Few deadly crashes during the lock-down itself is the evidence of that. The lives saved on roads during the lock-down can be lost within few months of traffic operations. Therefore, speed restriction is a must on all urban roads.
One of the trend that has been reported in recent days in many American and European cities is that the governments are turning vehicle lanes to cycle lanes to promote cycling in the cities. Nepal can also cash this opportunity. The restriction on shared mobility will push people to out of the vehicle. With proper re-distribution of road space to pedestrian and cyclists the government can create a pull effect on those who want to walk/cycle. This will also support speed restrictions to the motor vehicle operators. It is certain that the walking, cycling and use of private modes is going to increase, but the government’s policy and decisions would be crucial to define how the use continues or shifts to public transport or private modes. We already have multiple examples proving wider roads are not long term traffic solutions. Therefore, we must correct our past limitations and this is the time to act. Policy and guidelines should to be developed to ensure better resilience of the transport sector during and after such outbreaks in the future as well.
Tomorrows’ “normal” will definitely be different from that before the pandemic. Work from home culture, and home delivery services have been booming as a huge demand for them was created by the lock-down. They will definitely retain demand and hence, reduce the need for travel. But, the growth in economy will soon catch-up the to the previous demand. The standstill situation has presented an opportunity to re-shape the transport scenario and all the parties involved – government, operators, policy makers, researchers and the public must act proactively to make it more inclusive, cleaner, vibrant, safe and resilient.